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Sex, Sin and the Missing Starlet

Author: Sandeep Unnithan
Publication: India Today
Date: July 9, 2012
URL: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/laila-khan-missing-starlet-pervez-iqbal-tak/1/203032.html

Introduction: Laila Khan and her Family have been missing from Mumbai for over a year. The police in two cities are investigating their disappearance, with no luck so far.

On the night of January 30, 2011, starlet Laila Khan, 29, stepped out of her ground floor flat in Sunshine Apartments in Mumbai's north-western suburb of Oshiwara. She was accompanied by her mother Shelina, 50, older sister Hashmina, 31, twin siblings Imran and Zara, 21, and cousin Reshma, 20. The family drove out of the city in a white Scorpio and a black Mitsubishi Outlander towards their holiday home, a bungalow perched on a hilltop in Igatpuri, 126 km north of Mumbai. They also took with them their pets, an alsatian and two Persian cats.

On February 9, 2011, Shelina spoke with her Mumbai-based sister Albana Patel. She told Albana that she was in Chandigarh with her third husband Pervez Iqbal Tak. Then, there was silence. The calls on their mobile phones were answered by strangers. The family vanished without a trace.

On June 21, 2012, Tak was arrested in Jammu after a three-week operation by the Jammu & Kashmir Police. Police say he was evasive during his interrogation. He claimed not to know the whereabouts of his family and also theorised that they had gone abroad, possibly to Dubai or some African country. "For a smalltown school-dropout, Tak is sly and sharp," says Garib Dass, DIG Doda-Ramban range. "He isn't telling us everything he knows."

Their story has elements of sex, crime, money, terror and the underworld. The family's disappearance is being tracked by the police of two different states after Laila's father Nadir Shah Patel filed a missing persons complaint in the Oshiwara police station on March 2011. Tak was arrested for cheating and forgery- police recovered a fake PAN card with Nadir Shah Patel's name, but with Tak's photograph on it.

The police's interest was aroused by the recovery of Laila's Mitsubishi Outlander in a garage in Kishtwar, near Jammu, on May 29. Inquiries from locals led to Tak, a small-time timber contractor-turned-politician. He was handsome and extremely ambitious. He borrowed Rs.10 lakh from locals and contested the 2008 Assembly polls from Inderwal constituency in Doda on a ticket from Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). He left Kishtwar later that year when the lenders began knocking on his doors.

In early 2010, Tak landed at the doorstep of Gurdial Singh, 86, a retired Indian naval officer who lived with his 80-year-old wife in Hoshiarpur. The Singhs had property and their three children were settled in the UK. "He came to us with his wife and two young daughters, claiming to be a Kashmiri refugee. He told me that his family had been wiped out in an attack on his village," Singh says. Tak stayed with the aged couple for over two weeks. He borrowed Rs.2.2 lakh for a hospital he was ostensibly building in his native village and then vanished.

Tak then resurfaced in Mumbai in 2010. He was seen at the NCP offices, looking for a break in politics. It is unclear how he met Laila's mother Shelina, but the two made common cause. Shelina was the daughter of a junior artiste from Delhi who came to Mumbai in the late 1950s to try his luck in Bollywood. His only memorable role was the small part of a dying soldier in Chetan Anand's Haqeeqat in 1964. Shelina was the rebel in a conservative Pathan Muslim family. In 1979, she eloped with her lover Nadir Shah Patel, a Khoja Ismaili Shia businessman, on the last day of her SSC exams. A decade later, she informed her family she had divorced Nadir and married Asif Ahmed. She worked as an events manager and even ran a clothes shop in Andheri and often travelled to South Africa for shopping. "She was very hi-fi, we are very simple," says her sister Albana, who lives in the distant middle-class suburb of Mira Road. "But she was the prettiest among us," she adds wistfully.

When Shelina met Tak, she had been with her second husband Asif Ahmed, 50, for 20 years. Relatives say that she was smitten by Tak's good looks and often compared him to a young Shashi Kapoor. Tak was looking for a place to stay and a platform for his ambitions. In December 2010, he married Shelina, 15 years his senior. Their neighbours at Oshiwara say that Shelina used her younger husband to run errands and drive her family around. The family lived a highmaintenance lifestyle. Shopping was a priority for Laila, who spent all her money buying expensive dresses.

But the money only came after a long struggle. "Shelina struggled to feed herself. She groomed her daughters to become actors. After acting in a few films, they became rich," says Albana. The income, however, was in stark contrast with the bit roles her daughters got. Shelina joined an anti-corruption NGO, Rashtriya Satyawadi Yuva Manch, as the president of the women's wing in Mumbai region. She got a small role for her eldest daughter Hashmina in the Adam Bedi-Negar Khan film Hello? Kaun Hain? in 2003. In her daughter Laila, Shelina saw hope of stardom.

Laila began her Bollywood career as Reshma Patel and modelled herself on Divya Bharti, an incandescent 19-year-old Bollywood star who mysteriously fell to her death in 1993. Laila spent hours in front of the TV in the bedroom of their Oshiwara flat, copying her idol's histrionics. In 2008, she debuted with Wafaa, as the unfaithful wife of much-older Rajesh Khanna. She signed two more nondescript films with her first director Rakesh Sawant. Laila's career was going nowhere. Yet their income was disproportionate. The family had assets of over Rs.3 crore. Laila's Igatpuri bungalow is worth over Rs.70 lakh, the Oshiwara flat worth over Rs.1.5 crore, a shop in Andheri's posh Lokhandwala complex worth Rs.40 lakh and a flat at Mira Road worth Rs.50 lakh. Curiously, all of them were gifted to Shelina and her daughters by 'benefactors'. The Oshiwara flat was gifted to Hashmina aka Afreen, 31, by an elderly US-based person when she turned 18.

Officers of the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad suspect Shelina's first husband Nadir Shah Patel, a Mumbai-based garment exporter, is also involved in the case. "Nadir could have played a major role in their disappearance to get control of the property," says a police officer. Nadir, who lives with his wife and two children in Mira Road, rubbishes this. He says he is running from pillar to post in search of his children. "The police are lax and were not interested in locating my children," he says.

On February 26, 2011, a mechanic alerted the Jammu police about a white Scorpio with Maharashtra licence plate. Covered in tarpaulin, the vehicle was parked behind Jammu's Asia Hotel for over a week. The vehicle was found to be registered in the name of Laila's mother Shelina. Shelina's husbands Tak and Asif Ahmed had stayed in the hotel from February 12-14, 2011.

In September last year, Shelina's elder sister Meher Akhtar visited the Igatpuri bungalow to look for the family. The bungalow was gutted. Shelina's Honda City was still in the compound but furniture from the bungalow was found in tribal homes nearby. The tribals claimed Asif Ahmed had given them the furniture. The two watchmen in the bungalow gave conflicting versions of the fire. One said it occurred 15 days before. The other said it happened two months before. "We still do not know who started the fire and why," Meher says. "I would be satisfied with a glimpse of my children," says Shelina's mother Kaneez Fatma, 85, who lives in Mumbai. "If you spot Tak anywhere, shoot him," she snarls.

Sawant, who directed Laila in Wafaa, is also waiting for her. Laila shot some scenes of his film, Jinnat, and disappeared. He spotted Laila at an audition in Delhi in 2004. Shortlisted among the top 10 contestants, she breezed through a screen test in Mumbai. "She did not say no to intimate scenes with Rajesh Khanna," Sawant told India Today. Laila was 'nice, calm and involved' and satisfied with her Rs.3.5 lakh pay for the film. "Shelina was loud and domineering and regularly interfered in Laila's life and work," he adds. Laila was looking at a career in the southern film industry if she failed to make it big in Mumbai. With her career in films flagging, she started spending time in the company of a mysterious businessman called Afghan Khan, who she had met in a Lokhandwala hookah bar in 2007. Afghan Khan was allegedly in constant touch with Laila and police say they found an SMS from him on her phone, urging her not to leave Mumbai.

Sawant says he found some of Laila's contacts suspicious. In December 2009, Laila had invited Sawant to her bungalow at Igatpuri. She introduced him to two Arab investors. "They wanted to invest Rs.15-20 crore in making a film and show the money as mine. I refused as I did not want income tax queries," he says. The discussion ended inconclusively. Sawant lost contact with Laila after February 2011. Sawant says he next heard of Laila while shooting for a music album in Srinagar. A state government official told him that a police team had gone to Mumbai to inquire about the missing starlet. On returning to Mumbai, Sawant filed a missing person complaint in Oshiwara police station in March which he claims the police did not take seriously. Laila's father Nadir Shah Patel had already lodged a complaint. In February 2011, the case was transferred to the Nashik police when it was discovered that the family was last spotted there. Since then, the police have made no headway into the probe. Theories have been floating about the family's link with the Delhi High Court blast in September 2011. Investigators say they have not found any proof.

The Jammu & Kashmir Police have two theories that substantiate what the Mumbai Police believe. The first suggests that Shelina, Laila and her siblings did indeed flee from the country, fearing harassment from her friends like Afghan Khan. The second, more disturbing, theory says that the family was wiped out by someone who wanted to grab their property.

Laila may never have achieved Divya Bharti's fame, but in her disappearance, she has crafted a mystery as great as the death of her idol.
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